Philly initiative fights food injustice through urban farming, start-ups

The city is trying something different: a grant program to support initiatives led by the community, in areas where access to healthy food is most needed.

Gardeners work at Glover Gardens. (Courtesy of Hajjah Glover)

Gardeners work at Glover Gardens. (Courtesy of Hajjah Glover)

Hajjah Glover didn’t have access to healthy food growing up in West Philadelphia. Her mom shopped at dollar stores or chain convenience stores that didn’t carry much quality produce, she said.

“My normal was going to the corner store. My normal was eating junk food, that became my normal,” Glover said.

A high school internship at the Sankofa Community Farm at Bartram’s Garden changed that. She learned how to grow fruits and vegetables, and that set her whole family on a healthier diet. But at the same time, a spark was lit.

“I started questioning why that opportunity [access to quality food] was taken away from me, or members of my community,” Glover said.

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Buying fruits and vegetables is not easy in Philadelphia. A new city report says that only one in nine grocery stores sell healthy food and that more than four in five retail food stores sell foods high in calories, fat, sugar or salt rather than fruits, vegetables, grains or legumes. That disparity is greater in lower-income neighborhoods, according to the report.

Amanda Wagner runs the city Department of Public Health’s food and exercise program, FoodFitPhilly. She said that despite Philadelphia’s efforts to increase healthy food access, the reality is that still only 19% of all grocery stores in the city generally have a high produce supply. And according to the report, most of the healthy food stores are “overwhelmingly concentrated” in Center City, University City, West Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill and Upper Roxborough.

(City of Philadelphia)

To solve that, Wagner said, this year the city is trying something different. It’s launched a grant to support food justice initiatives led by the community, in areas where access to healthier food is needed the most. The new program, run in partnership with the Reinvestment Fund, a Philadelphia-based national food justice organization, selected six local projects for a total of $180,000 in funding support.

Glover, now 20, received $4,000 for all the supplies she needs to start a home-garden consultancy targeted to working-class residents in her predominantly black West Philly neighborhood and also in Southwest Philadelphia. Her Glover Gardens venture will help her pay for business classes at the Community College of Philadelphia.

“People want to eat healthy. People want to have access to real food,” Glover said.

The problem? There’s nowhere to buy it, she said, or it’s too expensive.

The solution? Grow it yourself.

In Glover’s experience, children and adults who grow their own food also eat healthier.

“People in general, but specifically children, love to be involved, so if they’re planting a seed, if they’re feeling a plant actually grow, they’re more intrigued and they’re like, ‘Wow, I want to try this,” Glover said.

Jarrett Stein co-directs Rebel Ventures, a healthy food business run by high school students.

“Healthy, nutritious food is hard to find, it’s expensive, especially the stuff that’s delicious that kids really want to eat. And the opposite, the delicious unhealthy food that’s not really helping them in terms of their health, is really easy to find,” Stein said.

Rebel Ventures started from the desire of kids to challenge that and to try to solve it, Stein said. Its first product was Rebel Crumbles, an apple-filled, whole-grain cake served for breakfast at Philly’s schools and available at stores around the city. A new project, for which it got $42,000 from the Philadelphia Food Justice Initiative, is a health food market for youth, run by youth. The first “Rebel Market” will open in West Philadelphia next year, and will hire three high school students to join the staff.

Wagner of the city’s health department said unhealthy diets and lack of access to nutritious foods are underlying contributing factors to various ailments, including heart disease and stroke.

“Unfortunately, Philadelphia has some of the leading rates of those,” she said.

The Philadelphia Food Justice Initiative received more than 100 ideas from community organizations, food justice collectives, and start-ups after an open call in February. A committee of public and private partners selected six projects, giving preference to ideas led by people of color or from communities with greater need, Wagner said.

Other projects selected were: a community-owned food buying club for affordable produce run by Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha ($55,000); a Laos in the House project to grow vegetables and herbs native to that nation and other Southeast Asian countries and then use them in intergenerational cooking classes ($10,000); Masa Cooperativa, a worker-owned cooperative to produce masa out of locally grown corn for restaurants and customers, led by South Philly Barbacoa ($14,000); and Mill Creek Urban Farm, a West Philly community garden run by African-American neighbors providing food access and community healing ($55,000.)

WHYY is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.


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